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Can a marriage survive a gender transition? Yes, and even thrive. How these couples make it work

Avril Clark, left, and Lucy pose for a photograph during an interview at their house in London, Tuesday, June 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung) Avril Clark, left, and Lucy pose for a photograph during an interview at their house in London, Tuesday, June 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
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Marissa Lasoff-Santos and the person she would marry quickly fell head over heels in love. Lasoff-Santos was a gay woman. Her girlfriend was a bisexual woman -- or so they thought. Now her partner has become her husband, and they both identify as queer. And things are better than ever.

"We've always just had this deep connection, so that's why, like, I never stopped loving him throughout any of this," says Lasoff-Santos, a 33-year-old librarian in Michigan. "I've become more attracted to him. I guess part of it is just, like, that confidence in him and, like, he just seems so happy."

Lasoff-Santos' relationship and others like it show that a partner's gender transition does not necessarily mean a death sentence for a marriage. Data is scant, but couples and therapists say that in many cases, a relationship grows and flourishes under the light of new honesty.

Such marriages, when they do prevail, can underscore the resilience of love, the flexibility of sexual identity and the diversity in LGBTQ2S+ relationships 20 years after the first same-sex marriages in the U.S. and with Pride Month in its sixth decade.

"Even though he was the one transitioning, I felt like I was going through my own transition," Lasoff-Santos says. "It was definitely hard to not, I guess, come across as kind of selfish, because I was going through all these emotions, and he was going through his own journey."

Kristie Overstreet, a sexologist and psychotherapist who says she has worked with trans people for 18 years, says about 2 in 5 relationships survive a transition. And Kelly Wise, a sex therapist in Pennsylvania, estimates that about half of relationships in his practice that experience a gender transition end -- for many reasons.

"Gender identity milestones often arise around times that many things are evolving within people and their relationships," Wise says in an email.

A recent U.S. Census Bureau report on same-sex households doesn't reflect marriages in transition because the bureau doesn't ask questions about gender identity.

Avril Clark operates Distinction Support, an online network that helps supportive partners of trans and nonbinary people. Her spouse, a soccer referee at the time, came out as transgender in 2018, changed her name to Lucy and brought the couple much attention. Before then, Avril says, they had kept their arrangement private and "lived a double life" for 15 years.

"I needed somebody to talk to that knew how I was feeling," Avril says. "And I looked around, and there weren't any groups that were for me. They were full of people that were very angry and bitter and didn't want anybody else's relationship to work because their relationship hadn't worked."

Lucy Clark says Avril had been pressing her to come out for years, "but I didn't because I thought it would affect football. And I loved football and had it in my mind that I would give it up." She didn't, and she now manages Sutton United Women in south London.

Avril Clark says that when she took over Distinction in 2017, it had about 50 members worldwide, but now there are "way over 500."

"I've got this group with all these people on it, all fighting, some of them fighting to make their relationship work," she says.

The Reddit group r/mypartneristrans, which describes itself as "a supportive, educational, and safe space for the partners of trans and gender-diverse people," counts 61,000 members.

Topics include questions about how to handle Mother's Day and Father's Day; unwelcoming relatives; sex and pregnancy; and how to categorize a cisgender partner's sexual orientation. In other words, now that I'm a woman married to a woman, does that make me a lesbian?

Clark says some people call themselves "heteroflexible."

"It doesn't mean 'I am a lesbian' or 'I'm a gay person,"' she says. "It just means, 'For this one person I am prepared to be flexible."'

She estimates her group is 90% cisgender women and 5% transgender or nonbinary people who may also have a partner in transition. The remaining 5% are cisgender husbands, she says.

For people already in a same-sex relationship, a partner's gender transition can bring angst but also self-discovery.

Lasoff-Santos says she had previously wondered if she could ever be married to a man. "And I always said no. And I think it's hilarious just now that I am."

Couples in transition find different ways to address life from "before" -- trips, memories, weddings, anniversaries, family events, photos.

"The partner that isn't transitioning may want to display and still share all of these versus their partner who may not want these visible or talked about," Overstreet says in an email.

Lasoff-Santos and her husband married in 2018 as he was beginning his transition. They had a son in 2021. When her husband shows their son pictures of himself pre-transition, it's just "Papa with long hair," Lasoff-Santos says.

One partner may sense a shift the other does not. Emily Wilkinson, 33, who lives near Seattle, says she doesn't doubt "that I love Cameron and will continue to love Cameron." But her vision of their love has changed since her spouse began transitioning last year.

For Cameron, 39, "Our love doesn't feel any different to me, but I'm not the one who has to adjust in our relationship." They spoke on the condition that their last name not be used to avoid potential consequences at work, where they are not out.

There can be joy in coaching a partner in their new identity.

Rhiannon Rippke-Koch, 45, lives in a small city in Iowa with Sophia Koch, her recently transitioned wife of the same age. She recalls the first time Sophia got to be herself for a whole weekend, during a trip to Des Moines.

"I took her to Victoria's Secret and had them measure her for a bra," Rippke-Koch says. "And I took her to Sephora, and they did, you know, the whole makeup thing where, you know, with colour palettes, and showed her how to do her eyeshadow and foundation and all that sort of stuff. So --"

"It was awesome," Sophia finishes, beaming.

The couple also bond over experiences Sophia previously denied herself because of notions about masculinity -- musicals, flowers. Rhiannon says they're now "much more intimate, and not even in a sexual way. But we talk about things more. We have more things in common now than we did before."

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Associated Press video journalist Kwiyeon Ha contributed to this report.

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